June 12, 2008
Instant Cities And Gated Communities Of Asia

Think the creation of multi-million populations takes centuries? Not any more. Cities get created very fast in China.

In both China and the Persian Gulf, cities comparable in size to New York have sprouted up almost overnight. Only 30 years ago, Shenzhen was a small fishing village of a few thousand people, and Dubai had merely a quarter million people. Today Shenzhen has a population of eight million, and Dubai’s glittering towers, rising out of the desert in disorderly rows, have become playgrounds for wealthy expatriates from Riyadh and Moscow. Long-established cities like Beijing and Guangzhou have more than doubled in size in a few decades, their original outlines swallowed by rings of new development. Built at phenomenal speeds, these generic or instant cities, as they have been called, have no recognizable center, no single identity.

Rapid economic expansion creates a condition where lots of people who didn't use to be able to afford much housing suddenly can. Plus, the Chinese government and people look upon economic growth the way a much poorer American people used to see it: as a great thing.

Whereas many Americans want to protect old houses of supposed historical value in China massive new buildings are all the rage.

“In America, I could never do work like I do here,” Steven Holl, a New York architect with several large projects in China, recently told me, referring to his latest complex in Beijing. “We’ve become too backward-looking. In China, they want to make everything look new. This is their moment in time. They want to make the 21st century their century. For some reason, our society wants to make everything old. I think we somehow lost our nerve.”

Holl has reason to be exhilarated. His Beijing project, “Linked Hybrid,” is one of the most innovative housing complexes anywhere in the world: eight asymmetrical towers joined by a network of enclosed bridges that create a pedestrian zone in the sky. Yet this exhilaration also comes at a price: only the wealthiest of Beijing’s residents can afford to live here.

I think part of the nostalgia for old buildings in the United States comes from a desire for permanence as a source of security. But if you really want security in a form that most matters then how about supporting bigger efforts to create rejuvenation therapies. Then instead of watching your face and body gradually crumble they will look youthful for decades and therefore far more permanent.

Affluent people in areas with lots of really poor people want protection. I flash on the Todos Santos gated arcology community in Jerry Pournelle's science fiction book Oath Of Fealty. The newly affluent in India live in new gated high rise communities.

GURGAON, India — When the scorch of summer hit this north Indian boomtown, and the municipal water supply worked only a few hours each day, inside a high-rise tower called Hamilton Court, Jaya Chand could turn on her kitchen tap around the clock, and water would gush out.

The same was true when the electricity went out in the city, which it did on average for 12 hours a day, something that once prompted residents elsewhere in Gurgaon to storm the local power office. All the while, the Chands’ flat screen television glowed, the air-conditioners hummed, and the elevators cruised up and down Hamilton Court’s 25 floors.

Hamilton Court — complete with a private school within its gates, groomed lawns and security guards — is just one of the exclusive gated communities that have blossomed across India in recent years. At least for the newly moneyed upper middle class, they offer at high prices what the government cannot, at least not to the liking of their residents.

I expect an acceleration in the reshaping of communities. While we face a shortage of liquid fuels energy in the next 5 to 10 years eventually technological advances will make energy cheap again. Plus, robotics and nanotechnologies will lower the costs of fabrication and construction. My worry is that much of the planet's surface will eventually become constructed and fabricated.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 June 12 10:08 PM  Trends Housing

Jay said at June 12, 2008 10:31 PM:

I find the NYT to be quite the Euro-centric paper. They'll always focus on class warfare in particular countries, while downplaying it in others. The legacy of Wilsonianism, I'm afraid. What about gated communities in Venezuela? You won't see NYT mentioning those.

Mthson said at June 12, 2008 11:00 PM:

The newly rich movers and shakers in India and China are probably more relevant to the global economy than inequality in Venezuela about which people don't really know what to do.

Larry said at June 13, 2008 6:19 AM:

I recently visited Honolulu for the first time in many years. I was astonished at how "constructed" a place it has become. It seemed little different from Tokyo. I don't know that development is the cause, but the rapidly eroding beach at Waikiki seems emblematic of the change. In another decade, it apparently will be gone.

One reason that constructedness is more appealing in Asia than in the West is that life in the un-constructed parts of those countries is miserable. There, concrete and steel are alternatives to mud and dust, not to verdant parkland or comfortable cottages.

Fat Man said at June 13, 2008 7:41 AM:

"While we face a shortage of liquid fuels energy in the next 5 to 10 years eventually technological advances will make energy cheap again."

As I have repeatedly said, it is a political, not a technological, problem. I think this quote says it best:

"I think we somehow lost our nerve."

kurt9 said at June 13, 2008 8:44 AM:

I don't think that its the preservation of old buildings that Americans are into as much as it is the desire to preserve low-rise development. Most Americans (myself included) have an aversion of high-rises. We like things spread out and no more than 2-3 stories. In Asia, where land is at a premium, high-rises are seen as much more desirable. Also, Asian are much more "urban" in their tastes. So, they quite like high-rise living. They see the high-rise urban condo as a status of luxury living.

When I lived in Taiwan, I lived on the 26th floor of a 27 floor high-rise. I found that I actually liked it. I had a great view and there was a well-stocked convenience store just across the street from where the elevator stopped on the ground floor. However, when I returned to the U.S., I found that I wanted my low-rise, spread-out living back.

Liquid fuel, like the rest of the commodities are in a speculative bubble right now, just like equities in the late 90's and housing up until last year. This bubble will eventually pop, as all bubbles do, and the oil prices will return to the $60-70 per barrel range. This is the price range where technologies such as oil shale, coal gasification, methane hydrates, and the like become economically feasible. These technologies will be available when the conventional oil runs out in about 50 years.


I think you're right that the cause of nostalgia is the aging process. When you are young, you look forward into an "endless" open future. When you age, you realize that you no longer have an endless, open future. Worse, your abilities decline and you feel less competitive with the rest of society. This, in turn, makes you start to idolize past times in your life, thus creating the feeling of nostalgia. This is simply reason #546 why we need to develop effective rejuvenation technology.

Of course, there are people who are opposed to the development of effective anti-aging therapies. These people are simply mean-spirited, spiteful, "little" people. I just ignore them.

David A. Young said at June 13, 2008 10:09 AM:

Technology is going to make it increasingly easier to build a wider variety of structures both high above-ground and deep below-ground, which may eventually make such living arrangements more enticing -- especially combined with the ability to turn entire walls into video projectors, which could give the average apartment dweller a very powerful "sense" of being surrounded by whatever natural setting most appeals. Large "mega-skyscrapers" might also be able to accommodate fairly sizable areas of green "park space" within them. A critical factor will be to make these types of living arrangements available to a large segment of the non-"rich" communicity. How people react to these types of choices/opportunities will play a big part in determining how much of the planetary surface eventually gets "constructed upon."

Rob said at June 13, 2008 1:46 PM:

If cars become very expensive to operate, I think we'll see the middle class living in what I call contractual community areas of cities. The middle class, for good reason, refuses to live in proximity to predatory underclass. But no one likes hour-long, $50/day commutes, and people seem to enjoy being a part of a community. The solution is mixed-use, intentional communities.

Jay said at June 13, 2008 3:22 PM:

Mthson, I'm a longtime reader of the NYT, and I find that they're quite an Atlantic-leaning newspaper, so that they tend to put up stories presenting Europe and European-affiliated interest groups in a favorable light, while casting other potential rival groups in a negative light. In other words, they have an ethnically biased agenda. If there are rich or pro-capitalist groups which are competing with Europeans (eg. Asians), then the NYT will cast these groups in a negative light, mostly portraying them as oppressors of the local poor, while lavishing their socialist opponents with praise. However, if there are socialist groups which seek sovereignty, autonomy and independence from Europe (eg. Latin American socialists) then the NYT will portray these groups as regressive, while doling out praise to their local opponents, upper-class and capitalist though they may be. To me, it seems like the NYT is a European embassy on US soil.

Hopefully Anonymous said at June 13, 2008 7:01 PM:

"My worry is that much of the planet's surface will eventually become constructed and fabricated."
Actually, due to a combination of urbanization and a stabilizing global population size, that shouldn't be much of a problem. I look forward to the first 100 million + population cities. That's all the great friends and business contacts that can be made in person in a city of 10 million, times 10. With a stable global population of about 9 billion, I doubt it makes sense to gather human populations in city sizes greater than 500 million. That's a shame though, I'd love to live in a city with 1 billion people as close to each other as are the residents of Manhattan.

aa2 said at June 13, 2008 8:56 PM:

We have an interesting marxian assumption whenever gated communities are brought up. That the rich are responsible for the poor turning into dangerous criminals, and the rich are wrong to try to protect themselves in gated communities. And a second assumption is that the poor are obviously poor because the rich are rich. First reality: if some citizens weren't acting as violent animals, no one would need gated communities.

The second reality is that in most places the poor are poor because of their own actions. In American cities for example where there are many gated communities, being poor means having more then enough food to eat, medical care provided for by the government, free tv, free housing.. And tons of opportunities to work or get education. In Zimbabwe poor means being near starvation, and in that case I can see the people driven in total desperation to violence or honestly revolution.

Randall Parker said at June 13, 2008 9:55 PM:

Hopefully Anonymous,

When people have lots of energy they move away from urban areas. They fly more. They drive more. They reshape larger areas of land and build larger structures. Suburbs and McMansions are getting hit in the US by high gasoline prices. But some day in 2-3 decades energy will be cheap again and McMansions will once again sprout across the landscape.


Yes, the people who pay for gated communities do so out of necessity. Yes, the higher income people do not make the poor people into criminals.

Poor by their own actions: I would say poor mostly due to intellectual deficiencies which are mostly genetically caused.

aa2 said at June 14, 2008 2:51 AM:

Randall- I also believe sadly that most poor are poor due to intellectual deficiencies. Wherever you see whites in the world in nations with property rights they produce a gdp of about 40,000$ in 2007. Whether they are in Iceland, or in the middle of Europe, or the white upper class in Latin America. However in Latin America it appears to the locals that the whites have stolen the wealth as they are so wealthy compared to some of the other ethnicities there.

On the suburbs, I agree, once we get cheap energy again it will be gung ho build out of suburbs and exurbs. I don't think it will even be that long, as we are already seeing electric vehicles nearing production. Like the Mitsubishi MiEV, 180 km range, seats 5, 22,000$. Electricity is almost free to fill up the vehicle. I once calculated it would cost 7 dollars to fill up an SUV with electricity to the same amount of driving range as the current gasoline fill ups. Thats one reason its stupid to argue whether nuclear is viable at 4 cents a kilowatt hour or 5.5 cents a kilowatt hour. Whether it costs 7 dollars or 9 dollars to fill up your SUV doesn't make much difference. On the other hand if the battery costs 30,000$ or 12,000$ for such a vehicle is the decisive factor.

Anyway once we get the cost of batteries way down and capacities up, people will be back in their hulking SUV's, and driving long distances.

Brock said at June 14, 2008 5:27 PM:

aa2, when "white people" settle in less developed nations they bring the practices and culture of their rich nation with them, allowing for great wealth. When the natives of those less developed nations come to America and abandon their old ways they prove themselves capable, over and over, of creating great wealth. Put your worries away.

Hopefully Anonymous said at June 14, 2008 8:26 PM:

I think that's a bit overreduced. First of all, flying more is compatible with a super-city and less surface area built up future. Second, it's not clear to me that cheap energy results in everyone driving more and becoming suburban. Why people go in urban or suburban directions is complex, but it seems clear to me that the overall trend is to from rural to metropolitan as wealth increases. And a world of 9 billion people, most living in 300 metropolitan regions each of about 30 million in size, is probably a less built up world in terms of surface area than we have today. Also, as plane travel decreases in risk (to the point where commercial plane flight crashes between large metropolitan regions occur less than once per generation), and as treatment of flying phobias increase in effectiveness, efficiency, and cost, the need for highway infrastructures between metropolitan regions should decrease to zero.

Allan said at June 15, 2008 12:55 PM:

The decision to live in suburbs is based on personal choices. Most people simply don't like living in crowded high-rises. Most people don't like living in crowded cities especially the ones with high crime. Thus they retreat to their gated communities to recreate their own little peaceful retreats. People like having a yard with gardens. People like having space between them and their neighbors ... and the more they can afford, the more they will buy. People like to feel safe.

Mthson said at June 15, 2008 4:10 PM:

Brock, the main examples of that are NE Asians, which seems to support what aa2 is referring to. (1. Cold environments were an evolutionary niche in which the new challenges could be planned for, unlike e.g. droughts, and 2. genes influence culture and culture influences genes).

Other talented immigrating groups that might be used as examples tend to be the result of selection bias from a larger population (e.g. Iranian-American academics). It's certainly not a showstopper in the long term, and almost every country is a net positive on the global economy, but there can be benefits to practical predictions in the meantime.

kurt9 said at June 15, 2008 4:59 PM:

People choose to live in high-rise condos in urban areas because they like to party and have the social life that such urban areas offer. Other people choose to live in the suburbs because they want a nice, quiet place with a big back yard to have and raise children. Is it not likely, then, that both life-styles will increase in popularity as time goes on?

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